Saturday, July 9, 2011



I have been reflecting on an eastern aesthetics that relates art to spirituality and meditation. Art is a way of “Making Peace” with nature, and with the community as a whole. Art is not just about making works of art.

It is possible to find some important links between Indian approaches to art as Sadhana, and the Chinese way of approaching image making in relation to Tao, or the Way.

The whole style of approaching art criticism is very different in the East from the philosophy of art which we find in the West. Reflecting on the meaning of art is through poetic metaphors, and using intuition rather than rational, discursive thought.

Rabindranath Tagore visited China, and other countries of the Far East, and as a result a number of important artists and philosophers from China, Japan and Indonesia interacted with the Bengal School of Art as developed in Shantiniketan at the Kala Bhavan. We note that in the work of Ram Kinker, Binod Behari Mukherjee, and others of the Bengal school, there are ideas that can be found in Chinese aesthetics, combined with Indian concepts like Rasa and Dhvani. The Kala Bhavan, which was started in 1919, the same year as the Bauhaus in Weimar, brought together many strands of far eastern aesthetics. At this time art critics from the West like Laurence Binyon, E.B. Havel, Stella Kramrisch, and many others “discovered” the aesthetics of the East, and suggested its vital importance for the renewal of art as a spiritual force.

George Rowley in his Principles of Chinese Painting, and Lin Yutang in her translations from the original writings of Chinese practitioners, and thinkers about aesthetics, have contributed to an understanding of
the relevance of Eastern forms of art as an aspect of spiritual practice. In this way we can also see the link between Taoist and Zen Buddhist forms of meditation, and inner processes that Tantra-Yoga in
India tried to understand, and describe.

In trying to outline a way of Seeing, and responding to the natural, environment, through art as a spiritual practice, I have been studying some of the writings that are available on Eastern aesthetics. Already Ananda Coomaraswamy tried to articulate what he felt was a very different approach to art, which was practiced in the East, but which has become of increasing interest also in the West
through a growing awareness of Buddhist and Hindu metaphysics. In the same way that classical Greek philosophy profoundly influenced the development of European art, perhaps now Eastern forms of
philosophical thought, and also aesthetics, could play an important part in shaping an art of the future, which embraces all cultures.

Aesthetics and inter-religious understanding.

Making peace with nature has also brought together people of different faiths. It has been noted that faith systems like Taoism, Confucianism, Vedantic Hinduism, and Buddhism, are all characterized by a different understanding of the relation of the human community to its natural environment, from the attitude that we find in the Judeo-Christian family of religions. There, going back to the Old Testament and Prophetic writers we find a radical form of metacosmic spirituality. According to this worldview, human beings have to go beyond nature to find a God who is distinct from Creation. Nature is often viewed as a hindrance, or at least a reality that needs to be overcome and transcended if we are to reach out to a God who cannot be apprehended in the way that we observe natural phenomena.

In fact one of the criticisms levelled by such a monotheistc and transcendent belief system, against more cosmic spiritualities that we find in folk and tribal religions, but also in the mystical insights of Taoism, Buddhism and the Vedanta, is that here nature is often confused with the Creator, and phenomena which we experience with our physical senses are seen as ways to discovering the Divinity
immanent in the whole of Creation. This viewpoint is often characterized as pantheistic, and part of an illusion which instead of revealing the Divine, tends to obscure a true understanding of the Godhead.

Art can help in bridging the gap between different faith systems by affirming the truth which lies in the imagination, and a more affective approach to spirituality. Images rely on metaphors, and are thus closer to a more intuitive approach to reality. The metacosmic worldview has often been too narrowly rational, and has tended to separate the human community, and cultural forms from the life springs of nature. There are those who blame our present ecological crisis on the way that metacosmic faith systems have turned aside from the natural, and created environment, and placed human beings
above their environment, even proposing that the whole of Creation is only for the use and advancement of human communities. This has led to a kind of injustice, where not only nature is denied its rights,
but also those who live close to nature, are seen as inferior human beings. The problem of human poverty is related to the way that natural resources have been used, and appropriated by the powerful, who have often legitimised their position as the prerogative of those who have been called to a higher position above natural necessities.

In this way we can observe that making peace with nature is a necessary step towards making peace with those who live close to nature, and depend on its resources for their livelihood. The process of “making” which is the creative task of cultures, is about Making Peace through art forms. Here aesthetics can be seen to have a vital import on ethical issues. Seeing nature is also about seeing the reality of the world in which we live.


Recently we have been thinking about the role of art in Peace Studies. In the Sita School, which Jane started in 1975, art has played a very important part in the education of the students. Here “art”
is not thought of in a limited sense, as just one particular form of art, but rather in a broad way as the use of the imagination. This includes working with puppets, dancing, story telling, painting and
working with materials like clay, paper, wood and so forth. The imagination has a very practical, and physical application in what might be called play. We learn about our environment, and also our
own bodies, through playing with materials. There is a wisdom which we derive from a physical contact with materials, using our hands, as much as our intellectual faculties.

It has been suggested that violence increases in society in relation to the split between mind and body, our intellectual lives, and the way we feel, and sense the reality of the world around us with our
bodies. Too often modern culture is characterised by a very intellectual, rational approach to learning, which leaves out the wisdom of the heart and the hands.

Art may provide a way in which we can have a more integrated approach to the world in which we live. This is characterised by an attitude which we call “empathy”. This includes an approach to others, and nature as a whole, which feels at one with the experience of those who are outside our own personal world. We can have empathy for living creatures, including trees, flowers, and even non-living aspects of our environment like rocks, and rivers. We can feel an empathy for animals, and also strangers, who are outside our own familiar cultural world. It is through such an empathy, that is a power of the imagination, that we can find bridges between our own world, and the reality of those who are not part of our cultural and historical community. Empathy is essential if there is to be peace between cultures and people, and also between human communities and the natural environment.

Through a summer school of seeing, we hope to explore these issues of peace and cultural diversity, along with an awareness of the natural world in which we live. The purpose of such a school is not just to learn how to do a particular form of art, but rather how to use the imagination for mapping out relationships that lead to a more peaceful interaction between persons and things. The imagination has
an important role to play not only in the way we learn, but also in the way we relate to others. The summer school of seeing will thus attempt to create ways of communicating with others, and creating
maps for peace.

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